The Song Machine

March 25, 2012 at 07:04 PM · I found myself pretty turned off, reading this well-reported article, called "The Song Machine," about the "creative process" involved in making pop hits. Of course, this isn't the process for ALL pop hits; there is such thing as a pop artist who deserves respect. But for a good many of them, it goes this way:

I found the whole process to be cynical and brainless. I don't think that everyone who creates a song necessarily has to be musically literate (ie., to read music, be competent in playing an instrument, to sing on pitch) BUT...the way the process has been sliced and diced, down to just picking lyrics at random from a cell phone....

These songs that get so much air play. The words and the "hooks" wind up circulating in everyone's brains, and the lyrics come from ...snippets on a cell phone? Billboards? And the music consists of all machine-made sounds, nothing acoustic, with all vocals auto-tuned. No wonder they tend to make no sense at all, no wonder they have that empty feel.

What are your thoughts?

Replies (38)

March 25, 2012 at 07:25 PM · Laurie,

I just read it yesterday. On hand, one can consider the fact that a handful of people are behind a large part of the hit/smash machine to be the musical equivalent of "pink slime": just take bits and pieces of discarded meat (or phrases or licks or progressions), sanitize it, and it's ready for consumption. The world gobbles it up, and everyone makes money. It's not that different from fast food. It is what it is, everyone knows it, and they get just what they expect (I must say, however, that the quality of meat in Japan and other countries is really atrocious compared to America, so if you travel be prepared to be disappointed, even at Macdonalds...)

The broadcast music world doesn't regard it as art--just as filler between commercials. Commercial airtime is what is important, not the music. Even if you hate the likes of Rush Limbaugh, you have to keep in mind that his prime motivation is, by his own admission, not to effect positive change, but to sell commercial air time to advertisers.

However, this is just the model for top 40, and there are lots of very talented and original songwriters.

One could, of course, make the cynical argument that composers in every time period simply pandered to the mass taste and cranked out what they hoped would be hits (or better, smashes). Think Rossini. Thankfully, time has filtered out the great mass of insipid and just plain bad classical music.

March 25, 2012 at 11:26 PM · Most pop music with insistent beat and bass is just a soporific narcotic for people who refuse think.

March 26, 2012 at 12:35 AM · Slick production for the unsophisticated mass, just like junk food, this type of junk music will sell and ultimately get on the “100 songs you must listen to before you die” list. It won’t fool everyone and will phase out eventually and get replaced by something else, better or worse. This is reality.

March 26, 2012 at 03:31 AM · The analogy that Scott and Yixi made to junk food is quite apt. (Scott particularly nailed it by comparing it to "pink slime.") Popular it is .. there is a reason why there is a whole aisle of bag snacks and a whole aisle of soda at the supermarket.

What I find very humorous is when you have so-called "critics" of popular music who actually are paid to listen to this stuff and write about it using phrases like "the most recent opus" and the "artistic development" of the musicians and maybe the "intellectual process" that went into deciding the order of songs on the album, and so on. It would be like Alton Brown going on in his usual patter about the nuances of a White Castle hamburger. And yet, if you don't pay lip service to the idea that current popular music is "just as important" (and the same goes for "world music") then you're a closed-minded snob. Having said that, I wonder how long it took Kuchler to write a Concertino that sounds like cheap Vivaldi? Couple of afternoons? There's derivative junk in the classical world too.

March 26, 2012 at 04:24 AM · "Most pop music with insistent beat and bass is just a soporific narcotic for people who refuse think."

Corwin, You're not wrong, but I think one has to recognize that this music is "created" (if you will) for a very specific audience: Teens and pre-teens. When I was young I liked certain types of music, which I eventually grew out of. Most people grow out of pop-40 music as well. And that's normal and expected. 40-year-olds grow out of many things, or should: Cap'n Crunch, skateboards, comic books.

And by the same token, young people shouldn't necessary be expected to appreciate Mahler, or foie gras, or 100 Years of Solitude.

And just for the record, I always thought Hall & Oats REALLY sucked.

March 26, 2012 at 06:19 AM · Guess the link hadn't enough hooks. I didn't manage to read to the end. Sorry! geriatric attention-span.

Comedy shows are created by teams, too. And the camel's a horse designed by a committee.

To be serious, composition's a JOB. I find that even the kind of musical composition I do has to be "calculated", i.e. the requirements and abilities of the performers and the receptivity of the eventual audience have both to be carefully weighed in the balance. Whilst the process is not quite as cynical as it might seem to an outsider any practitioner needs to be hard-headed, IMHO.

If I were MORE hard-headed maybe I'd have that Malibu beach-house like Charlie Harper...........

March 26, 2012 at 07:26 AM · Where's the problem? It sounds like quite a creative area where at least they have to come up with new hooks every time, unlike in a classical productions where the same hooks (Bach & Mozart & al) are eternally recycled.

March 26, 2012 at 09:27 AM · Well, we must face it - in hundred years or so everybody will hum “Boom, badoom, boom / boom, badoom, boom / bass / yeah, that’s that super bass”, and the Zauberflöte, the S&P and the Pastorale will be forgotten.

March 26, 2012 at 04:39 PM · The music might be created for teens, but I believe there are discerning teens who'd like more than junk music. After a while the Pepsi and pink slime and Dorito dust make you sick.

March 26, 2012 at 07:22 PM · I want to know how many of you have actually listened to and watched the videos of the songs listed. I suspect most of you have not.

I you had, you would have even more to say. No one has even mentioned the VSO's being played by invisible musicians in Clarkson's video, "Already Gone." Or how about the absolutely filthy lyrics/dark imagery in Rhianna's "S&M"? Do your kids listen to this? On the radio? Hundreds of times a day? You should care about what your children listen to as much as you care about what they eat. Go ahead, I dare you to listen to them.

I haven't voluntarily listened to any FM radio station for over a decade now.

PS The chord progression mentioned in paragraph six is incorrect. E Major, not minor.

March 26, 2012 at 08:26 PM · Tobias, Bach's music has survived for almost 300 years; neither it nor Mozart nor Beethoven is going anywhere in the next 100. John Dowland's songs, written around 1600 still are performed, and I'll bet songs of Lennon/McCartney, Cole Porter, and Richard Strauss will still be performed in 2300. The better music will last, the rest will go to the curb with next week's garbage.

Laurie, there are plenty of teens who have diverse tastes in music. I've heard, in no particular order, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Scandinavian metal, Grateful Dead, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith and Philip Glass leaking out of my kids' rooms.

P.S. Emily, your post came in while I was typing mine amidst myriad interruptions. You are, of course, dead right about the putrid lyrics with skeezy videos to go with.

One of the funniest things I've ever seen was a few years ago when Britney Spears was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. She had a string section playing back-up. Almost to a one their faces perfectly expressed, "For THIS I busted my ass at conservatory?"

March 26, 2012 at 10:24 PM · i think it takes some musical education to appreciate much of classical music such as Mahler, Strauss, Nielsen....and many people do not have this privileged background. I play on a regular basis for older folk in nursing homes and if I play classical, they listen politely, but prefer the pops of early years or fiddle music or country/western. They tell me they grew up during the Depression, there was no money for music lessons and classical music is unfamiliar and requires background. I try to introduce some of the simpler light classics and they will accept them. That is why it is very important for musicians to try to reach broader audiences, especially in the schools, but also in other community settings. We are, after all, the privileged. It is incumbent upon us to share.

March 27, 2012 at 12:22 AM · I don't mind the fact that the instruments are all machines or that every thing goes through auto tune. The lyrics bother me. Most seem to send a message that your worth is defined by sex. It's damaging to young women especially, but to young men too. And in the article, when the songwriter tries to make a song with less raunchy lyrics, they tell her it wont sell. (which is not true, because "all the single ladies" was a big hit and the words to that are ok, and slightly amusing) So whose fault is it then? To quote my all time favorite bumper sticker, seen in a seattle parking lot: why is it so hot in here and what am I doing in this basket. :)

March 27, 2012 at 12:38 AM · @ Di

"i think it takes some musical education to appreciate much of classical music such as Mahler, Strauss, Nielsen....and many people do not have this privileged background"

This is a musical myth. If all you drink is cheap wine , than ya luv the taste of cheap wine. If $100.00 bottle of wine is all you drink, than you are not going to love the taste of cheap wine. You're going to like what's around you.

March 27, 2012 at 01:39 AM · Lisa,

that was an ironic remark, not my real opinion. If I would have listened to the last albums of beyonce, britney, rhianna and madonna the rest of my brain maybe could really believe such nonsense, but somehow I find no time.

March 27, 2012 at 05:17 AM · Very well said, Charles. Many people from East European countries and Asia who have better than everage tastes in music and arts had very deprived childhood economically and politically. On the other hand, I guess one can always argue that being exposed to classical music and fine arts at a young age is of itself being privileged, regardless other hardship.

March 27, 2012 at 01:39 PM · OK - I just read a lot of, but not every word from, the article and the posts so far. It's a little eearie for me personally, as I just woke up a little while ago, and my dreams included living in a household with pop song writers - I kid you not!

A little about myself is relevant here. I'm first and foremost a classical violinist, but my professional activities have always included doing a lot of pop work, shows, etc. And I'm not ashamed to say that I have enjoyed quite a lot of it. Some of the best violinists in the business have done a lot of that, too, as well as movie music - including Toascha Seidel, Louis Kauffman, Aaron Rosand, Charles Libove, Glenn Dicterow - and maybe particularly, David Nadien. I've worked with Tony Bennet, Ray Charles - as concertmaster! - and can be seen in a video with Rascall Flatts - "Feels Like Today". I was also invited to do a Broadway tour of "Miss Saigon" as concertmaster. Again, I've really enjoyed a lot of my pop work, which takes nothing away from the fact that as I posted in another thread, if I had to be exiled onto a desert island and was allowed to bring my violin and only one set of pieces with me, it would be the unaccompanied Bach works.

As far as the type of music focused on in the article and most reactions to it here, I certainly agree, and the fast-food analaogy is indeed, very apt. But there is pop music and pop music, just as there is great classical music and less than memorable classical music. Vivaldi has been accused of writing the same concerto 400 times. That's probably not very fair - but certainly most of them come well under the bar set by the truly inspired Four Seasons. There are any number of pieces by lesser contemporaries of Haydn and Mozart whose string trio or quartet divertamenti make perfectly adaquate wedding reception fodder - but not much else, and there's certainly a place for that, too. On the other hand, there have been any number of pop songs from Jerome Kern to recently that have moved my emotions or charmed me in their own way. It doesn't have to be either/or. Different genres of music scratch different itches in the psyche. Heifetz wrote a pop song under the pen name, "Jim Hoyle", called "When You Make Love to Me, Don't Make Believe" which was recorded by Bing Crosby. If I could write a pop hit, I'd cry ashamedly - all the way to the bank!

Again, when it comes to the formulaic musical fast-food reported in that article, no disagreement. But I did want to say a few words in support of a lot of creative and even moving pop music that also exists. So come on, admit it: how many of you also have some guilty or not so guilty pop pleasures? ;-)

March 27, 2012 at 02:15 PM · There is pop music and there is pop Muzak. There will be many popular songs that last but so much dreck will fall by the way. But the worst Vivaldi concerto undoubtedly had more art than all but the very best popular music of our day.

March 27, 2012 at 02:36 PM · Great post, Raphael. I'm glad i let you say it becuase you did it better than i would have :)

March 28, 2012 at 01:38 AM · The issue seems to have turned to quality, with the analogy being the large amount of mediocre baroque and classical tripe turned out. However, I think the issue is not mediocrity, but monopolization.

Those uninspired kappelmeisters, each in his/her respective burgs churning out trio sonatas, are not analogous to the very small coterie of tune smiths feeding uniform product to vast millions around the globe. I think it is indicative of the many types of monopolies that operate just below our radar, be it banking, food production (pink slime is made, as far as I know, only by BPI), or any number of industries that we naively assume to operate in a competitive manner.

March 28, 2012 at 04:45 AM · Well said, Scott.

March 28, 2012 at 06:42 AM · Re:- "any number of industries that we naively assume to operate in a competitive manner."

Yes, Bach, Mozart & Vivaldi didn't have any sort of global stranglehold. Posterity gave them something that might now seem similar.

Though some modern tunesmiths might seem cynical, they can hardly be classed as brainless, IMHO. I liken them unto those traders who appear to make megabucks simply by pressing a computer button at just the right moment. Such folk might seem like cynical zombies when at work, but by jingo, they need to be SMART !

March 28, 2012 at 01:11 PM · I don't disagree, Scott. It's a matter of what aspect of the issue of pop and classical music we are emphasizing. And lest some of us turn up our noses at pop music as a whole, I posted what I did, which in a sense is an outgrowth of what you had posted earlier:

"However, this is just the model for top 40, and there are lots of very talented and original songwriters.

One could, of course, make the cynical argument that composers in every time period simply pandered to the mass taste and cranked out what they hoped would be hits (or better, smashes). Think Rossini. Thankfully, time has filtered out the great mass of insipid and just plain bad classical music."

March 28, 2012 at 01:51 PM · Beethoven's 5th had a pretty good Hook. I heard a bird sing it the other day and I wondered if Beethoven plagiarized a bird's song.

We have a simple idea(hook), then we expand on that idea, and that is what composition is. How we get that idea usually isn't that original, you have taken it from someone, something or from somewhere. If a group of people are getting together and collaborating to write a piece of music in a team effort, then that is a good thing.

Auto tune, loudness wars (over compressed), and other junk musical effects kill music , but what can you do but turn the channel.

@ Raphael

I would pull a Tonyah Harding stunk on another fiddler to work with the great Ray Charles.

March 28, 2012 at 04:36 PM · lol! Yes, that Ray Charles gig was quite an experience! If anyone is interested, I could go into a lot of detail. But it would be getting too off-topic, maybe.

March 28, 2012 at 05:42 PM · Okay Raphael, now you've done it. Now we want a blog entry on playing for Ray Charles.

Scott I agree monopolization is an issue, but I don't think it's the only issue in play. In baroque days they did crank out piano trios one after another, but they couldn't have 20 of them in a week including the printing and global distribution of millions of copies. Also in those days someone bought the music or payed for its performance. These days you steal the music and buy the products that pay for the advertising that goes in between the music.

I also agree with Emily that a lot of this stuff that is passed out as "music" today is so appallingly sleazy that there really cannot be an artistic justification. It's basically audible porn. But is that really any worse than pulp romance novels? Seems there's plenty of sleaze to go around, and plenty of folks shelling out their hard-earned money for it.

March 28, 2012 at 06:21 PM · "Auto tune, loudness wars (over compressed), and other junk musical effects kill music , but what can you do but turn the channel."

A lot of classical musicians may not realize that this is being done to their music also. Done behind the scenes.

March 28, 2012 at 07:09 PM · The difference, Paul, is that sleazy novels are not usually broadcast over loudspeakers in public places. I feel held hostage by bad music, sometimes.

March 28, 2012 at 07:43 PM · As Charles observes, all types of music use a hook. Beethoven came up with a pretty memorable one to begin the 5th, where Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique) and Tchaikovsky (5th symphony) use the same hook, if you will, from the beginning to the end of a long piece. It's what you DO with the hook that counts. Rachmaninoff didn't look good enough in a bikini to make it on MTV, so he had to actually write.

Several years ago the radio program "Performance Today" ran a series called "What Makes it Great?" The narrator, I want to say it was Miles Hoffman, would take apart a piece of music. One day he was talking about a Sondheim song. It was fascinating to hear what he had to say about what kept it from being mediocre and predictable, and to hear what it could have sounded like with less skilled and expressive harmonies, etc. Some pop songs are really really good, most are not.

Raphael, here's another vote for Ray Charles stories- lots, unexpurgated, please!

March 28, 2012 at 07:55 PM · The article wasn't what I expected after reading the discussion thread first. From the discussion thread I expected it to be about generic songwriting, but it actually focused quite a lot on specific people, Ester Dean and Rhianna.

In general, I don't listen to those singers or that type of music very much at all. The only exception is that I really liked "Pon de Replay" several years ago. When I first heard it I was almost obsessed with it. I had it on my iPod and I (re-) played it literally over and over, and never got sick of it. Sometimes I would dance to it. Or I listened to it while grocery shopping or doing something else that was deadly boring, and it transported me to a different world. (Some classical music does this for me too, but the mental world looks a little different.) I haven't heard anything from Rhianna since then that has grabbed me the way that song did.

In any case, the way they described Ester Dean's creative process was very foreign to me. It came across as very oral and out loud and visceral. It was a group effort, and very extroverted. It seemed like there was constant evaluation and re-working, in real time. It was like a crowdsource, or a group brainstorming session, or a church revival where they were speaking in tongues--and Ester Dean was the conduit and channel for all that raw energy.

The only way I could imagine writing a song would be to sit alone at a piano, maybe with some manuscript paper to write down the notes and lyrics. I'd bring other people in as collaborators, but I'd do it much later in the process, and a lot of the actual creation would take place in my head. But while that's the way *I* would do it, I've never actually written a song, so I don't feel qualified to criticize or judge the way Ester Dean and her collaborators work. I found it more fascinating than anything else that people's minds and creative processes could work so differently.

March 28, 2012 at 09:20 PM · OK - who wants my Ray Charles story here, and who wants it in a separate blog? I hope in any case that I don't disappoint after all this unexpected buildup!

March 28, 2012 at 11:13 PM ·

March 29, 2012 at 06:02 AM · Remember CAPTAIN HOOK ? The crocodile probably swallowed a Wittner metronome, not a clock.

March 30, 2012 at 08:46 AM · Raphael: blog it!

March 30, 2012 at 02:01 PM · Sorry, could not get finished with the article.... this might be both cogent and interesting...>

(you may have to paste it into the address line of your browser)

an interesting comparison of Bruckner to Heavy Metal

April 1, 2012 at 08:52 PM · Ok, folks, you asked for it! See my Ray Charles blog!

April 2, 2012 at 03:25 AM · Thanks, Raphael!

I spent the weekend listening to New Kids on the Block and other corporate "boy bands", as well as various indie groups of the 90's and 2000's. It's been fun, looking into the makings of a corporate market band and comparing it to what makes a truly great indie artist. The indie movement really took off with the advent of the internet, which made it easier for groups not contracted under any major label to succeed in getting their music out to big audiences. Reactionary in force, many of these bands have gained their popularity specifically for being non-mainstream, possessing quirks and unique sounds you can't find on a typical pop station.

There's still a lot of great original music being made out there, and a lot of thirsty ears are flocking.

April 2, 2012 at 03:27 AM ·

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